Review: 2011 Toyota Corolla LE

By Roger Boylan

The past two weeks would have been a good time for me to go on a bank-robbing spree. Last week I was test driving a gray Toyota Prius, and this week my tester has been a gray Corolla. Either one would make an ideal invisible getaway car: “’Getaway car?’ said eyewitnesses. ‘What getaway car?’”  Actually, come to think of it, a Prius seems such an unlikely set of wheels for a desperado that even a gray one might catch someone’s eye. But the Corolla would just melt into the landscape.

And that, I concluded after a week at the wheel of a 2011 Corolla LE, is pretty much its mission. It’s everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous yet invisible. It’s a no-frills, no-worries, no-bling car. You buy one for anything between $15K and $21K, depending on trim level (base, LE, or S); you drive it for 100,000+ miles; you trade it in; lather, rinse, repeat. Because there’ll always be another shiny new Corolla down at the dealership. The nameplate’s been around since 1968. It’s the single best-selling automobile in history: over 35,000,000 sold. This averages out to one being sold somewhere in the world every 40 seconds.

It has an unremarkable but sturdy 1.8-liter engine good for 132 horses and 128 lb.-ft. of torque. It has a reputation for drop-dead reliability, recent recalls notwithstanding (the Corolla was recently exonerated.)  It sips gas as a duchess sips tea: After a week of constant driving, I still had enough regular juice left in the tank for a range of 60 miles. EPA figures for those equipped with the 4-speed automatic, as mine was, are 26 city, 34 highway. The car info center claimed an average of 32.8 mpg, a figure I have no reason to dispute. This is excellent fuel economy for a non-hybrid.

Actually, if you look hard, the Corolla emerges from anonymity. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it looks good enough to be mistaken for a little Lexus. Its lines, freshened this year, are crisp and trim. It’s a subtle, clean design, with a bit of Mazda 6 here (the tail), a hint of Suzuki Kizashi there (the leering headlights), but overall, it’s recognizably a member of the Toyota/Lexus clan: the common ancestry with the IS250/350 twins, for example, is obvious.  All in all, it’s an attractive car. Indeed, the full-boat Corolla S, in (say) jet black, with spoiler, tinted windows, and chrome alloy wheels, is a real eye-catcher, and even my humbler LE looked good, equipped as it was with the 5-spoke alloys, moon roof, and foglamps included in the optional Premium Package ($2,150, which also gets you a power moonroof, an upgraded 6-speaker audio system plus USB/ iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth). Despite all that, it turned no heads, except that of a driver of another identical gray Corolla LE, beholding his doppelgänger. So let’s be objective and imagine it’s a Lexus: Now isn’t it a nice-looking car?

Outside, the Corolla’s good looks may evoke its more expensive cousins, but inside you’re reminded of the true price point. Only cloth seats are available, and there’s plastic everywhere, filling the air with that good old rental-car aroma. The dashboard is solid hard-touch plastic, gray and black. But everything’s very well put together; not a panel is misaligned, or a cubby cover loose, and everything’s in its right place and intuitive to use.  Knobs and buttons are well placed, clearly marked, and large enough to not distract from the road. I also found the info display–instant and average fuel economy, fuel range, external temperature, etc.–useful and simple to read.  This is one of the Corolla’s attributes–it makes you feel at home in short order. In less than an hour I’d recovered from my initial discomfiture at being in an economy car (I know, what an old snob). After that I was quite happy behind the plump steering wheel, with its redundant audio and hands-free phoning controls; well accommodated, in fact, on the plush cloth seats, with room to spare in all directions for my extremities, always a reassuring discovery. It makes the difference between agony and comfort on long drives, as does good cold air conditioning, and the Corolla’s is top-notch. (It had better be, in Texas. Inadequate a/c is a deal-breaker in these parts.)

Leg room in the rear is sufficient for a trio of kids or a pair of average-sized adults. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 configuration, extending the 12.3 cu. ft. of cargo space in the trunk, which easily swallowed all my week’s-worth of groceries. Cubbies are amply provided, and there’s a split-level glove compartment, a feature I’ve noticed approvingly in other Toyotas. Visibility is good all around, an important safety consideration. Other safety issues are addressed with the standard array of protective devices:  dual frontal, front side-impact, and side curtain airbags, ABS, stability and traction control, tire pressure monitor, etc. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has given the 2011 Corolla an overall rating of “Good,” their highest accolade.

On the road, the Corolla impresses with its smooth ride and silent interior. In this, again, it’s reminiscent of its grander Lexus cousins. I heard nary a buzz from the all-plastic dashboard at any stage in a long drive. We went down some pretty rough Hill Country byways between Driftwood and San Marcos, a winding itinerary of some 75 miles all told, through Wild-West landscapes of mesas, juniper groves, and limestone ridges, requiring concentration on the part of the driver and agility and good brakes on the part of the vehicle. I concentrated; the Corolla paid me back by proving adept through the curves, with well-balanced steering that feels perhaps a bit too heavy at slower speeds, and brakes that do their thing firmly and well. Acceleration is good, not electrifying; I timed 0-60 in just about 10 sec, with the engine seeming eager enough but losing its oats in second and not recovering them until fourth, when cruising speed takes over and all is serene. My advice for Toyota, for what it’s worth, is: Lose this tranny. It’s an antiquated 4-speed that hampers performance. This car needs a 6-speed box, such as the new Ford Focus has. Or maybe a sophisticated CVT, as in the Nissan Sentra, or its own cousin the Prius. Because there’s nothing wrong with the venerable 1.8-liter engine, which, although not exactly a perpetrator of greased-lightning velocity, is more than equal to the task of moving the little car along briskly. It’s just that it would do a better job with a transmission that could keep the mojo right in the heart of the power band.

Apart from that, thumbs up. The Corolla’s a very good car, tested over the years, and built to resist trends. It’s sufficiently above average in all fundamental respects to not need to excel in any single one. The sales figures confirm the success of this formula: you know what you’re getting when you get a Corolla.  Because basically it’s made for people who don’t really care what takes them from A to B, as long as it doesn’t break down just outside B on a rainy night. And you know what? I’ve spent time just outside B on a rainy night, so I’m like that, too.

Author: Roger Boylan

Aside from being the only Autosavant writer with a Wikipedia page, Roger Boylan is an American writer who was raised in Ireland, France, and Switzerland and attended the University of Ulster and the University of Edinburgh. His novel “Killoyle” was published in 1997 by Dalkey Archive Press and has been reprinted four times. In 2003, a sequel, “The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad,” was published by Grove Press, New York. Roger’s latest novel, “The Adorations,” in which a Swiss professor named Gustave, Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s mistress, the Archangel Michael, and a journalistic sexpot meet at the intersection of history and fantasy, has been published as an e-book and is now available on Amazon.com and other online bookstores. Boylan's light-hearted memoir, "Run Like Blazes," has also been published as a Kindle e-book and is also now available on Amazon.com.

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8 Comments

  1. OK, so the Corolla is a good car. But there are plenty of other good cars out there, and nothing here really makes the Corolla stand out as a car worth buying. Dynamic driving characteristics? Nope. Above-average performance? Nope. Class-leading fuel efficiency? Nope. Cutting-edge technology? Nope. And while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is near impossible to claim the Corolla’s uninspired, forgettable styling is anything to get excited over. So where is the argument that the Corolla should be considered over a comparable Elantra, Civic, Focus, or Cruze?

  2. There is no argument, Luke. I’m in complete agreement with you. Having driven all of the Corolla’s 2011 model year competitors over the past few months, they are all without exception better cars. The Corolla is engineered to a price point and rests on its well-deserved past reputation.

  3. It’s quite shocking to me that Toyota would basically all but abandon its bread-and-butter small car in the midst of a small car revolution. You would think the history of the domestics doing the same thing (Taurus, Cavalier, Cobalt, etc) would be enough of a lesson that Toyota needs to make the Corolla competitive.

  4. I had a 2010 Corolla LE for 32 days last summer while my Mazda3 was being reassembled at the body shop. The material and assembly quality of the interior was shocking! Cheap plastics that would have been more at home in an old Daewoo, uneven gaps and obvious ‘mold’ lines. Control dials and buttons felt mushy and imprecise and handles felt as if they might break at any moment. Nasty!

    The electric power steering was also horrible, but I understand that they’ve corrected that issue now. The 2011 design ‘re-fresh’ is a definite improvement both inside and out. But I think interior materials are still lacking. And the use of a 4-speed automatic is ridiculous. It’s the last of its kind, sort of like the Dodge Neon kept using a 3-speed auto long after everyone else had 4-speeds.

  5. You said there is a common ancestry between the Corolla and the IS250/IS350 twins. What did you mean by this? The Corolla and IS share nothing, one is a RWD V6 sports sedan based on the Lexus GS and the other is a FWD 4 cylinder economy car.

  6. Jack, I think he’s talking about design, not mechanicals.

  7. Chris is correct. All three Toyota products=common ancestry. Like us and the Cro-Magnons.

  8. looked at the corolla & decided to drive it i wanted more features so salesman said we have aconvenience package i still would haveto pay 575.00 plus tax for theft deterrant system with interior flashing light it just had toyota corolla onthe back trunk i said this must be the basic ,no he said this is the ce but i said why isn’t it on the car should i buy the le as it will have some of the things i need not security system ,like this was cheap car &they would charge for package and no sticker to show it was ce just corolla

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